By Jason Smith
March 27, 2007
Their coach, Marcus Rogers, would have preferred them to have been playing or practicing Saturday on a baseball diamond, like many of the rest of Shelby-Metro's top high school baseball programs.
Instead, the Fairley Bulldogs spent Saturday morning and most of the afternoon gathered near the front entrances of a Whitehaven Wal-Mart, hustling team baseball cards for $10 a pop to raise money for transportation, equipment and other key needs for the Bulldogs' 2007 baseball season.
"Probably around 1 (p.m.), we'll drop (the price) down to like $5 because we've got to make some money," said Rogers, a former baseball standout at Fairley and 1996 graduate of the school now in his second year as the Bulldogs' head coach.
"Man, I'm ready to be through with this stuff and to concentrate on just baseball, but it's kind of hard. You've got to have money to do this."
As Saturday's inaugural Civil Rights Game at AutoZone Park commemorating the civil rights movement and baseball's role in it approaches, Rogers, reflecting on his own team's plight and those of the other predominantly black high school baseball programs in the city, described the harsh reality that faces today's inner-city teams.
Unlike their predominantly white county school counterparts that typically clobber the Bulldogs every postseason, Fairley has no baseball booster club, leaving Rogers and his players on their own when it comes to raising money for basic team needs.
Rather than practicing or playing, the Bulldogs have spent much of the early part of this season selling $10 team baseball cards that offer discounts and benefits at area businesses.
"Nah, we don't have (a booster club), but we're trying to get one together now," said Rogers, who despite the lack of financial support guided Fairley to a successful 23-7 campaign last season in his first year on the job. "I finally had a lady come to me the other day, (last) Thursday, and she started barbecuing and, you know, making smoked sausages, hot dogs, cole slaw, potato chips and drinks, and it was real nice.
"So I think she's going to go ahead and be the head of (the booster club), but we're still trying to get it together. I don't just want something thrown together. I want it like they've got it out there (at county schools). You know, organized."
The financial burden on inner-city teams is even greater at the middle school level, where city funding for baseball and softball was cut from the school budget in 1992.
While the Memphis Redbirds Foundation has helped to relieve some of the burden with its STRIPES (Sports Teams Returning to the Public Education System) and summer RBI (Returning Baseball to the Inner-city) programs, several schools are still struggling to field teams because of a lack of equipment.
"Money is a big problem," Riverview Middle School baseball coach Ire Johnson Jr. said.
"At Riverview, we don't have the asset of having new equipment or things like that. The Redbirds provided us with two gloves, but we still have to go around to some of the other schools in the neighborhood, borrowing old gloves and old cleats for the players. Working in a low socioeconomic area, parents really don't have the income to get these boys the proper equipment that's needed.
"The Redbirds and the STRIPES program, they'll supply you with like 12 balls, a bat and a couple of gloves, but, man, you're talking about a middle-school team with 15 to 18 guys. We've got four or five guys out there with just regular tennis shoes on because they don't have access to the proper equipment."
There are other factors, Rogers said, that have contributed to the steady decline of city-school baseball. A recent commentary on the subject in a local prep sports magazine that included some of Rogers' thoughts concluded that black kids are simply choosing to play other sports, specifically during the summer, when most of the area's top high school prospects are involved in competitive leagues.
While that may be the case, Rogers said, it's not the sole reason inner-city baseball teams haven't competed for state titles in decades.
"The white kids, in the summertime, they're playing the game," Rogers said. "The (high-school) season is nothing compared to what they're doing in the summer. They're going to Florida and California.
"Yeah, I have a couple of Puerto Rican kids (on the team) who played in a World Series championship last year in Anaheim (Calif.), and they play year-round. They've got a Puerto Rican league out there on Ross Road that they play in. But other than those two, I've got guys that play B-team basketball, are in ROTC and trying to get ROTC scholarships, and then my kids have to work. We're not as gifted as the Shelby County kids."
Rogers, the son of former South Side coaching icon Glenn Rogers Sr., didn't stop there.
"I'm going to be honest with you, and I thought a lot about this (Friday) night. I told the other (reporter) that interviewed me that it was about we're not playing year-round and all that, but something else hit me (Friday) night when I watched Maceo (Walker Middle School) play Cordova (Middle).
"Just being honest, it seems like all our good black (players), they play out there for Cordova. I see a couple of them in Germantown. You've got two at Collierville. I watch all those teams play.
"But it seems like once we as a people get a few dollars in our pocket -- and I know this is going to make some folks mad -- but once we get a few dollars in our pocket we move way out (away from the city). ... That seems to be what's happening. All the guys who have got the sons and nephews who are gifted, they send them out to (county schools)."
Steve Griffins, the Bulldogs' standout senior pitcher and third baseman, said it's tough competing with county teams when Fairley must spend so much time "hustling" just to play, but he's prepared to do his part.
"It's harder," he said. "The thing about the (county schools) is they've got people out there for them, helping them. We don't have anybody, so we've got to do what we've got to do to (play).
"I'm selling these (cards) like hot cakes, man. I've got to sell them because we're doing successful right now. We're 3-0 (on the season) and I think we've got a chance to beat them (county schools)."
-- Jason Smith: 901-529-5804
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